Ever go to your guy for support only to get off-the-mark advice? New research suggests that physical differences in the brain’s response to stress may be to blame. When stressed, men show less activity in brain regions needed to recognize people’s facial expressions — while women show more — according to a study published in the most recent issue of the journal NeuroReport.
The study subjected male and female volunteers to brain scans while under stress. To create stress, the participants’ hands were fully immersed in ice water for as long as they could take it, or three minutes (it feels worse than it sounds!). They were also told that they might have to do it again later, increasing their stress with apprehension. Controls put their hands in comfortably warm water. During the scan, participants were also asked to view pictures of angry or neutral faces. (More on Time.com: Are You at Risk for Divorce? It’s Not Whether You Fight, But How You Fight That Matters)
Men and women showed different patterns of brain activation. Everyone had activity in the fusiform gyrus of the cortex — an area known to be involved in recognizing and understanding the significance of faces and facial expressions — and in a related circuit of regions that contribute to the understanding of the minds and feelings of others. This circuit includes the amygdala, an area best known for processing fear-related emotions.
But compared with controls who were not stressed, men showed reduced activity in the fusiform gyrus, while women’s activity in this area increased. And, in the larger circuit — especially when viewing angry faces — women showed increased activation and coordination of activity between the amygdala and the fusiform gyrus, while the opposite was true for men. (More on Time.com: Under Stress? You Might Suffer Less If You’re Male)
What might this mean? For one, it may help explain men’s tendency to withdraw when stressed, and women’s inclination to seek social support. Humans have two primary patterns of stress responses known colloquially as “tend and befriend” and “fight or flight.” While both sexes can show either set of responses, women are more prone to seeking connection and care, while men fight or flee.
Second, it might explain the conundrum often faced by couples when under stress: she seeks support, but he pulls back or offers practical advice instead. When she starts to get upset, he doesn’t recognize it, and an argument ensues.
Of course, with brain scan research, it’s impossible to determine causality. Men might have this pattern of brain responses because of behaviors picked up during boyhood, while women get different cultural cues and develop different responses — and both brains show the result of years of gendered “practice.”
Alternatively, changes in brain development related to biological aspects of gender — such as sex hormones — might produce tendencies toward different behavioral responses. In fact, the study found that people with higher testosterone levels, whether male or female, had increased brain responses to angry faces in the control condition, but reduced responses to them under stress.
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